Apple Patents a System for Second-Hand iTunes Sales

Although the general understanding with digital goods is that you can't resell them, Apple and other tech firms don't necessarily agree.

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Although the general understanding with digital goods is that you can’t resell them, Apple and other tech firms don’t necessarily agree.

On Thursday, Apple patented a system for buying and selling digital movies, music, books and software. The system would prevent the original owner from accessing the content after selling it, and could allow the original creator or publisher to receive a cut of the resale price.

As PaidContent points out, Apple isn’t the first company to patent this kind of system. Just last month, Amazon won its own patent on an “electronic marketplace,” where users could buy and sell digital goods. Again, the system would remove access for the original owner once the sale goes through, and it could even prevent additional resales after a certain number of transfers.

You may be wondering why Apple and Amazon–two companies in the business of selling music, movies and books–would be interested in creating second-hand marketplaces. The main reason, I’m guessing, is lock-in. The ability to resell content could help attract and retain more users, which in turn could encourage more sales of tablets or other devices that support their digital stores. Users might also be more willing to buy movies, music and books if they know they can resell that content later.

Of course, this assumes that rights holders are willing to play ball. All signs suggest that they aren’t.

ReDigi, a company that already offers a pre-owned marketplace for digital music, is currently being sued by the music industry for copyright infringement. ReDigi argues that it’s within its legal rights because it doesn’t technically copy the original music file. Instead, it transfers the file to an online locker, and monitors users’ computers for unauthorized copies.

I’m sure Apple and Amazon are watching that case closely. But even if ReDigi prevails, it doesn’t guarantee that other companies will move forward. After all, Amazon and Apple rely on the entertainment industry for their existing digital stores, and for Internet-based services like iTunes Match and Amazon Cloud Player. Offering a second-hand market could very well jeopardize negotiations for other services.

As with so many other Apple patents, it’s best to think of this one as a possible direction for the company, not an absolute certainty. A second-hand market for digital content would be nice, but there are still a lot of obstacles in the way of major tech companies getting involved.